Please ask the Dog before Approaching

Approaching and petting dogs – Why consent before touching is important

This article follows on from our one on Dogs and Children.  It is important to remember a a dog may be fearful for many reasons; a result of a traumatic experience, lack of early integration, genetics, or being anxious around strangers, which is a particular problem at this time of the year, with many house visitors and guests coming to your home. Just as many adults and children aren’t too happy to embrace or hug someone that isn’t really close to them, it’s not acceptable for you to ruffle a child’s hair or rub a stranger’s pregnant bump, and it’s not Ok to touch someone without their consent. This fact is also something we need to understand when interacting with dogs too. Putting your hand into a dog’s personal space, is not an acceptable thing to do in a dog’s world.

Not all dogs like to be petted

Just like humans, every dog has a different level of tolerance when it comes to physically touching them. The majority of dogs enjoy being scratched and petted, especially in those hard to reach areas along their spine or just under their collar. They are at their happiest when someone is caressing them, skin to skin, and they will contentedly lean against you, but just like other humans, there are some dogs that prefer not to be touched unless at certain times, by only a few people they know and trust.

If you are approached by a dog

If the dog approaches you first, this won’t always mean he’s giving his consent – he’s just checking you out. Don’t make any startling movements or full on eye contact at this point, allow more time for him to assess things. You could try throwing a dog treat to the side of you, to check out his reaction. He could well pick up the treat and come to nuzzle your hand, slowly building up trust. The consent process is an ongoing activity, but your pet will soon let you know if he’s happy to be petted and touched at this point.

If the dog isn’t happy to be touched he will quite often show the following symptoms. Immediately stop what you’re doing and allow the dog some space.

  • Moves away and stiffens up or looks away
  • Showing the whites of his eyes (whale eyes)
  • Sneezing or yawning
  • Licking his lips – a common signal of stress
  • Growling or snapping

How to safely approach a dog

Teach anyone who is going to approach your dog to use non-intimidating body language. If your pet is shy of approaching strangers, give your dog time to approach them, rather than the other way round. A person your dog isn’t familiar with, walking towards and leaning over them may be frightening. Ask if they would mind approaching your dog with their body turned to the side, to make your pet feel more comfortable. It’s important to seek consent from your dog before encroaching into their intimate boundaries.  Dogs are expected to live in a world where some people will inadvertently reach out to touch then without asking first, so it’s equally important that your dog knows how to react to this generously, by socialising him.

When I’m meeting up with my Clients dogs for the first time, I would never just reach out and pet the dog, without first assessing the dog and the situation, and to gauge his reaction to me, as I gain his consent to touch him. I respect a dog’s right to decide how intently he chooses to interact with me, and I can always tell that a dog will respond to my respect with enthusiasm.  In fact, some owners are amazed to find that at our initial meeting, their dog will not be afraid of me, or anxious, which is all down to me not invading his personal space and obtaining his consent before approaching or petting him.